Land-grabbing made easy via electronic fraud

Property on a Greek island that had not been registered changed hands and was resold due to a loophole in the law and an electronic application form that allows employees at the land registry office to complete the owner’s details in special circumstances. The procedure is normally used to rectify errors but it is possible for the owner’s land to be taken and resold, making it difficult for the plots to be claimed by the state, to which they belong if they are not reclaimed within seven years by the actual owner. Changes to the ownership details of a property is a procedure (provided under previous land registry laws and last year’s Law 3481/2006) that is normally used to rectify simple errors such as misspellings or a wrong address during the time of registration. However, it can be more complex if, for example, a plot is half-owned by each spouse but only one spouse submits a declaration with the result that the other half is registered as belonging to an «unknown proprietor.» Controls lacking There are no provisions for checking procedures, as an error is not considered to constitute a dispute between private individuals. Moreover, the database in which the details of each owner are stored is accessible to land registry employees who can open the files and edit their contents, and not just the error in question. This loophole has given rise to a new form of land-grabbing, as was revealed at an island land registry office where the employee used the rectification procedure to transfer plots registered under «unknown owner» to a friend. The number of plots that changed hands is not yet known. After the illegal transfer had been carried out, the new «owner» received certification from the land registry office bearing the signature of the responsible land registry officer. The fraud was discovered after an anonymous charge was made against the sale of the plots by an unknown owner. As the new owner is now known, it will be difficult for them to be reclaimed. Land registered as belonging to an «unknown owner» becomes state property after seven years from the start of land registry operations in the area. For example, in Salamina a land registry office was set up in 2005, property of unknown owners will be transferred to the state in 2012. It appears that top land registry executives are aware of the fraud but it is not known to what extent the judicial system is involved. What is alarming is that this might not be the only case, as there are about 110,000 plots of land registered under «unknown owners» today. National land registry office a quagmire The land registry office has been a quagmire over the past few months, as new land registry programs have not been tendered, the levies for the 5 percent of the country that has been registered on the system have not been charged and eight land registry offices under the pilot phase have yet to be set up. The eight offices intended to provide support for the modern databases have not all been assigned and are in danger of losing the funds allocated in the Third Community Support Framework. The first attempts to make a national land registry were started 11 years ago and very little progress has been made since. It has taken seven laws, five ministerial decisions and many millions of euros to register just 5 percent of the country and to set up 86 of the 94 land registry offices. It is likely that the other eight offices will never be set up due to poor studies or other problems that have arisen. The eight programs provided for under the project «Database Infrastructure and Technological Information for a Modern Land Registry,» budgeted at 79.6 million euros, have not yet been completed as not all of them have been assigned. The European Commission has expressed its strong objections against two of the activities that were co-funded. Land Register SA claims the issue has been resolved but Regional Policy Commissioner Alejandro Checchi Lang has expressed his disagreement in writing to the president of the above organization regarding the auction procedure for the «digital database of active titles in the urban land registry offices» and has also requested amendments to «the delineation of forest and forestry areas.» Greece has been asked to complete the project as was initially agreed, otherwise the Commission will withdraw the funds. The programs must be applied by 2008, which gives the Environment and Public Works Ministry hope that they will not be thrown out of the Third Community Support Framework. If the land registry office programs are not completed, then the registration of land in urban centers cannot continue. The only development expected in the next few days is a judgment from the Athens Court of Appeals regarding the charges of malpractice brought against the former managing director of Land Register SA and a former member of its board of directors.